Now It’s Really Time for Unmarried Equality

Bella color, square, 376 dpi[This is the fourth in my new series of monthly columns. The views expressed here are my own and not the official positions of Unmarried Equality.]

Now that the Supreme Court, in Obergefell v. Hodges, has made same-sex marriage legal across the land, one of the most popular questions has been, “What’s next?”

I think what’s next is equality for all of the Americans who are not married, regardless of their sexual orientation or identity. There are more than 100 million of us. The name of our organization, Unmarried Equality, is the description of our mission.

Unmarried Americans should have the same legal rights, benefits, and protections that married people have. The important people in their lives should be just as valued as spouses. Single people should not be stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, or ignored and neither should their children.

Our case should be a straightforward one. It follows the basic outline of the case successfully made by the advocates of same-sex marriage. And yet, the nation does not seem ready. Personally, I’ve already experienced a discouraging degree of push-back as I raised these issues in the weeks following the SCOTUS ruling. Most disheartening, the resistance comes even from some of the same smart, seemingly progressive people who celebrated the Obergefell ruling as a civil rights victory.

I should not have been surprised by this. In my research on singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against single people), I have found not just that such biases against single people are pervasive, but also that they are often unrecognized. When faced with an example of discrimination against single people, intelligent people say, “Discrimination? What discrimination?” Or they unapologetically diminish and dismiss it, insisting that it is no big deal. They do so even when, in carefully controlled experiments, they recognize that the exact same discrimination, when aimed at, say, Black people, or gays and lesbians, or women, as quite a big deal. In the United States of America in 2015, it is still open season on single people. That needs to change.

Let’s first take a look at a sampling of the legal benefits and protections that heterosexual married couples have long had, and that gay and lesbian couples now have. Then we can consider the question of what it would mean to let unmarried people in on the largesse.

More Than 1,000 Laws Benefit Married People: Here Is a Sampling

Marriage confers more than 1,000 benefits and protections at the federal level and many rights and benefits at the state level, too (though with some variation from state to state). Here are a few.


  • Access to a partner’s Social Security benefits
  • The right to inherit property even if your spouse dies without a will
  • Tax breaks on estate taxes
  • Tax breaks on inheritance taxes
  • Exemptions from penalties on IRAs that unmarried people pay
  • Spouses can give each other huge monetary gifts (over $12,000) without paying taxes, and together, they can give twice that amount to a recipient and the recipient won’t have to pay taxes
  • Income tax breaks (for married couples filing jointly compared to solo single people)
  • Worker’s compensation benefits

Relevant to children:

  • Married couples can jointly adopt children
  • They have claims to custody


  • Greater access to health insurance
  • Hospital visitation rights
  • Authority to make medical decisions


  • Next-of-kinship rights
  • Immigration rights
  • Survivors’ rights and benefits
  • Can get listed on a spouse’s death certificate
  • The privilege of not having to testify against your spouse in criminal cases
  • The privilege of having your communications with your spouse protected in criminal and civil cases

Granting Unmarried People First Class Citizenship: What Would That Look Like?

What does it mean to let people who are not married in on the treasure trove of rights, benefits, and protects now available to any two adults who marry? In the outpouring of commentary inspired by the Obergefell decision, a number of examples were offered. I’ll share some of those, then describe a more sweeping and radical possibility.

Unmarried people have many different kinds of people in their lives they consider to be important. The philosopher Elizabeth Brake suggested that the State should recognize relationships such as “Two single female friends [who] cohabit, raising children together” or “elderly friends [who] cohabit.”

Clare Chambers, also a philosopher, believes we should think about extending rights to “unmarried cohabitants, property-holders, parents, carers, dependents, people who wish to designate each other next-of-kin.”

Writing in the Guardian, Hugh Ryan asked, “Why shouldn’t two elderly siblings, who care for one another in a long-term way, receive financial incentives to keep doing so? Or – as in my case – three men who love each other very much?”

English Professor Michael Cobb, author of Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled, raised these questions in his op-ed in the New York Times: “Why can’t I put a good friend on my health care plan? Why can’t my neighbor and I file our taxes together so we could save some money, as my parents do? If I fail to make a will, why is it unlikely a dear friend would inherit my estate?”

Piecemeal approaches present lots of challenges. Chambers articulated some of the significant ones when she asked, “Would rights and duties be tied to formal agreement, to length of relationship, to function, to finances?”

Let Marriage Be Sacred and Free

A simple, powerful alternative is to let marriage be sacred and free. The free part would mean that couples would be free of all government participation in their marriages – no special benefits or protections or rights or duties would be set forth in the laws of the nation or the states. The sacred part is that marriage could still be a religious ritual or rite.

Two days after the Supreme Court ruling, Rand Paul published an opinion piece in Time magazine under the provocative title, “Government Should Get Out of the Marriage Business.” (Oddly, the same media that is so enamored of controversy, especially in Presidential politics, mostly just ignored it.)

In that sentiment, Paul is joined by a growing number of other voices. In 2009, Rachel Buddeberg and I looked for advocates of that sort of position, and our non-exhaustive search turned up several dozen. By now, there are many more.

As we noted when introducing the various statements:

“The people (and groups) we have quoted have cast their arguments in terms of getting beyond marriage or conjugality, or privatizing marriage, or abolishing marriage, or maintaining the separation of church and state. The authors include libertarians, liberals, and conservatives; people from various religious perspectives; gay rights activists and people hostile toward the GLBT community; people taking a marketplace perspective as their starting point and others starting from a concern with basic human dignities and needs.”

Here’s just one example, from Michael Kinsley’s “Abolish Marriage,” published in Slate in 2003:

“End the institution of government-sanctioned marriage […] Privatize marriage […] Let churches and other religious institutions continue to offer marriage ceremonies. Let department stores and casinos get into the act if they want. Let each organization decide for itself what kinds of couples it wants to offer marriage to. Let couples celebrate their union in any way they choose and consider themselves married whenever they want. Let others be free to consider them not married, under rules these others may prefer. And, yes, if three people want to get married, or one person wants to marry herself, and someone else wants to conduct a ceremony and declare them married, let ‘em. If you and your government aren’t implicated, what do you care?”

I like the sweeping approach myself, but I’ll take my civil rights victories where I can get them.

[Notes: (1) Thanks to Rachel Buddeberg for pointing me to the illuminating set of commentaries on the same-sex marriage ruling by the philosophers at the Daily Nous. (2) Interested in joining a Community of Single People? Read about it here.]

About the author: Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and the forthcoming How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at

Previous columns:

#1 The Marriage Opportunists Are Coming – We Need to Be Prepared (or click here for a version that includes links)

#2 The Global Struggle for Unmarried Equality: The Case of Finland

#3 3 Roads to Social Justice – For Lasting Change, We Must Follow Them All

About Bella DePaulo


  1. John Ullman says:

    I am so glad to hear you, and other thoughtful people advocating for the rights of the unmarried. And Michael Kinsley is right as far as he goes. But it is now time for a discussion of both strategy and tactics. I think it has been a terrible mistake to be constantly debating who gets rights. The proper discussion should be who doesn’t get rights. And the bar should be set pretty high for who doesn’t get rights, definitely higher than couples privilege. So I advocate having personal rights. This means that every individual has the same rights as everyone else regarding the social safety net, the people they could live with, love with, etc, as you exemplify in your list. I think personal rights would work for a large group like unmarrieds as well as small groups like polyamorists. So I see personal rights as a better strategy for getting what would be both fair and desirable.

    Tactically, we need to think about our language and messages. The kind of things we need to kick around might be:

    How to show married people that individual rights will be better for them.

    Using a purjorative term for the current state of legal marriage like socialized marriage. After all, when the government tells you who your life partners can be, that is socialized marriage.

    Emphasizing to the religious right that the very act of allowing the government to make laws about marriage is blasphemous. It is contrary to the “render unto Cesar” text. Do they want laws about other sacraments, too?

    So let’s go at it!

  2. Thanks for this article! It’s so frustrating to be unmarried and committed. As you said, there are over 1,000 tax benefits to being married. But in my case, there’s not quite as many…self-employed, Social Security will likely have disappeared by the time I qualify, and many more. Anway, I just wrote about it on Huffington Post, if you care to check it out. Thanks for the great read!

    • Bella DePaulo says:

      Thanks for letting us know about your article. Hope it is getting attention. If you are interested, I put together a collection of my writings in which I use scientific research to slay some of the myths about single parents and their children,

    • Right on!

      I just want to clarify on Social Security – it won’t disappear when the SS Trust Fund runs out in 2034 (latest projection). Social Security taxes will continue to be collected, and will be used to pay benefits. Taxes will be sufficient to pay about 75% of scheduled benefits indefinitely thereafter (again a projection). Yes, it really bad that, if Congress does absolutely nothing, that in 2034 and thereafter, beneficiaries will suffer a 25% reduction. But that’s a lot better than a 100% reduction. .

  3. Patricia Lima Mira says:

    Travel offers always are for couple rooms, couple tickets, etc. In the menu, always a couple food to dinner, always so much food for a single person.

  4. Fantastic blog!!!


  1. […] Want to know more about what’s covered at the federal level? Check out “Can you name the 1,238 federal hat tips to marriage? Guest post by Onely” and “This is what it costs to be single” as well as “If you are single, every day is tax day: 19 examples” and “Now it’s really time for unmarried equality.” […]

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